Marvin Lewis was hired to coach the Bengals in January 2003, two months after Justin Timberlake released “Cry Me a River” and two months before the United States invaded Iraq. Four presidential elections, more than 100 NFL head coaches, and zero Cincinnati playoff wins later, Lewis and Bengals ownership agreed to part ways, and he will not return as head coach in 2019. The Bengals released a statement announcing the move Monday.
Lewis finishes with a record of 131-122-3 in Cincinnati. He is one of just six head coaches hired in the aughts who were still with their teams in 2018, along with Bill Belichick, Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin, and John Harbaugh. All of those coaches won Super Bowls during their tenure except Lewis, who failed to win a playoff game in his 16 seasons. The Patriots had more Super Bowl appearances under Belichick (eight) than the Bengals had playoff games under Lewis (seven). The Bengals became the definition of mediocrity under Lewis: Since he was hired, Cincinnati’s average first-round draft slot is 17.1.
As bad as that may sound, the Lewis era was a stark improvement for the Bengals, who were the league’s doormat until Lewis arrived. Cincinnati had a losing record in 11 of 12 seasons before Lewis, including five years with three wins or fewer. Since Lewis took over, the Bengals have had just six losing seasons in 16 years. The problem is that three of the six came in the past three seasons, and after more than a decade and a half the Bengals had begun to slip back into the decrepit state that Lewis found them in. Over the past few years, Cincinnati has increasingly succumbed to mental errors, lapses in discipline, and untimely penalties. Lewis faced some of the toughest challenges of his tenure in 2018: starting quarterback Andy Dalton was placed on injured reserve with a thumb injury and receiver A.J. Green suffered a season-ending toe injury; the defense, once Lewis’s calling card, allowed the most yards in the league. Cincinnati’s attendance numbers dropped to their lowest levels since 2011.
“I think I’ve already overstayed my time here,” Lewis said at a press conference on Monday.
His tenure will be defined in part by the defensive prowess Lewis brought—his role as the defensive coordinator of Baltimore’s 2000 Super Bowl squad was a key selling point for Cincinnati—and in part by Lewis and Bengals controlling owner Mike Brown being the the league’s most forgiving employers of the past 16 years. Cincinnati became a port in the storm for players who had run afoul of the league or had been accused of breaking the law over the years, including Adam “Pacman” Jones, Vontaze Burfict, and most recently Joe Mixon.
At the tail end of his final press conference for the Bengals, Lewis was asked what he wanted his legacy to be. He paused for a moment.
“I don’t know,” Lewis said with a laugh. “I’m not nostalgic. I’m a football coach.”